God Glorifies Us through Suffering

This morning I was reading 1 Peter 1 and ran across the following statements:

You are being protected by God’s power through faith for a salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. You rejoice in this, though now for a short time you have had to struggle in various trials so that the genuineness of your faith — more valuable than gold, which perishes though refined by fire — may result in praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. 

1 Peter 1:5-7

What stuck out to me in particular is what Peter says here about the purpose, or the “so that,” of Christian trials. Scripture here seems to say that we have to face trials in order that our genuine faith, withstanding all such testing, will actually result in our praise when Christ returns. We suffer so that we can shine.

I realize that this may sound a bit off at first, but there are other Biblical examples of this kind of rationale for suffering, at least for some of it. Take Job, for instance. In Job, we ultimately see God allowing Satan to inflict great suffering to Job’s vindication. By the end of it, Job has refused to curse God and die, as his wife suggested. He may have gotten harsh with God and threw around some blame, but he never gave up or repudiated his trust. When all of the rest is concluded, God commends Job and rewards him for his faithfulness over and against any of Job’s friends. God’s point to Satan from the beginning was that Job’s faith was real, and could stand up to trial, and this claim was vindicated to Job’s glory.

The theme like this of God glorifying His suffering people in fact permeates all of Scripture. He did this to Joseph, to Moses and the Israelites, to David, to Daniel, to many others, and ultimately to Jesus Christ (who, we must recall, is every bit as human as you or I). When God’s people patiently wait and suffer what they must, trusting Him through the whole of it, He uses the occasion to reward them and bring praise and honor to the virtues which He has given them.

To some extent, we recognize such a possibility even in a non-theological way. This is the way that the best stories work, isn’t it? The greatest heroes, the ones who we love and praise and celebrate the most, are not the ones who stayed in their Hobbit holes and enjoyed a simple life with a peaceful death. Instead, the heroes who receive the most glory are those who make it through many sufferings, who face the toughest obstacles and most heartbreaking setbacks. Frodo and Sam are renowned, but not the old Gaffer.

Of course, it is not obvious that real life has to work this way. After all, this glory is highly contingent on two things: the sufferings being known to all, and the would-be heroes actually making it all the way to success. In this life neither of those seem very certain. You may feel like asking, “Will anyone ever know what I have suffered? And will I even make it?” But this is where we have from God precious promises to our comfort. For He declares to us that all of our patience and faith in suffering (and all other good works) will be publically known on the last day:

Therefore don’t judge anything prematurely, before the Lord comes, who will both bring to light what is hidden in darkness and reveal the intentions of the hearts. And then praise will come to each one from God.

1 Corinthians 4:5 (cf. 1 Cor. 3:13, Lk. 12:2-3)

He also promises that He will carry us through to the very end, so that we know how our quest will conclude even in the midst of it:

Now the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ Jesus, will personally restore, establish, strengthen, and support you after you have suffered a little. The dominion belongs to Him forever. Amen. 

1 Peter 5:10-11

So on the basis of these guarantees from God Himself we know that glory awaits us on the other side of suffering.

You may also wonder, though, how this can be? Has God not said, “I am Yahweh, that is My name; I will not give My glory to another” (Isa. 42:8)? How can God glorify us at all, whether through suffering or by any other means? The answer to this, as with so many things, is found in Jesus Christ. God can glorify man because there was a Man—is a Man—who has the right to the whole glory of God. A human being from Nazareth named Jesus holds the name above every name, the glory of the only-begotten Son of the Father (John 1:14). We get to share in His glory because He is our Brother, our Lord, and our Bridegroom. We are united with Him by our baptism into His death and resurrection.

This brings us the ultimate promise and comfort. Because we belong to Christ, we will share His glory after sharing His sufferings. We have entered His story, not our own, and get to participate in His happy ending. Or, as Paul would say it:

So then, brothers, we are not obligated to the flesh to live according to the flesh, for if you live according to the flesh, you are going to die. But if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. All those led by God’s Spirit are God’s sons. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption, by whom we cry out, “Abba, Father!” The Spirit Himself testifies together with our spirit that we are God’s children, and if children, also heirs — heirs of God and coheirs with Christ — seeing that we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him. 

Romans 8:12-17

God Glorifies Us through Suffering

Life Is about the Trinity

In the wake of recent Trinitarian controversies on the Christian blogosphere, I’ve been given to some very interesting study on the topic of the Trinity. (If such controversy interests you, Alastair Roberts has been working on a round-up of the debate at Reformation 21.) I’m not going to bore you with much of it, even if I don’t find this boring at all, but I would like to offer some thoughts.

In my studies about the Trinity recently, I have been reminded of one crucial fact. This is ultimately what life is all about. By that I don’t refer to technical debates about the finer details of orthodox Trinitarianism. Rather, I mean coming to know God. And the true God is Trinity. As St. Gregory Nazianzen once said, “When I say God, I mean Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” Yet this God who is Triune is the only God, the God who loves us, the God who created us, the God who saves us, and the God for whom and from whom and to whom are all things, including our lives.

This is the subject which I have been thinking about lately. Life is about the Trinity. Life is about God the Father, the Maker of heaven and earth. It is about the Lord Jesus Christ, His only Son. It is about the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of life. In all things, then, our faith calls us to bear in mind not just that there is a God, but that this God is Father-Son-Spirit. 

The struggle, however, is to see this not as a detail of Christian dogmatics. We must instead recall that this is the living reality of the God to whom we pray and whom we serve on a daily basis. In our devotion, in our prayers, in our walks before God and man we somehow must live out a Trinitarian reality. This can’t be merely abstract, of course. We must recognize in their individual ways the works and persons of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. We must live and worship accordingly.

But what does this look like practically? How do we will all of our life with the recognition that knowing the Triune God is the meaning of it? Ultimately, it requires intense training, constant reminders to ourselves of who God is. This is why Scripture leads the way for us by teaching us to be baptized “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19), by blessing us with the “grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit” (2 Cor. 13:13), by imploring us through Christ and the Spirit’s love to pray to the Father (Rom. 15:30). It is why in our churches many of sing a doxology which concludes with “Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.” Many songs and hymns reflect such a structure. The Apostles’ Creed, which many churches recite each Sunday, is ordered around God the Father almighty, Jesus Christ His only Son, and the Holy Spirit.

In our personal lives, we would do well to consume as much of this as we can. Read Scripture and see the shape of the Father-Son-Spirit works and relations. Pray to the Father in the name of the Son in the Spirit. Acknowledge each of the members of the Godhead in your prayer and devotion every day.

Of course, one might still wonder. Can this really matter that much? But the truth is that it can. It does. For life is all about the Triune God, about knowing and worshiping Him. In fact, this vision of Father, Son, and Spirit is eternity, the destiny of the universe. Everything is from Him and to Him and for Him forever. Amen.

Life Is about the Trinity

Wanting to Justify Himself

The statement that prompted the parable of the Good Samaritan struck me recently. Here’s the account:

Just then an expert in the law stood up to test Him, saying, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“What is written in the law?” He asked him. “How do you read it?”

He answered:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.

“You’ve answered correctly,” He told him. “Do this and you will live.”

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

Luke 10:25-29

That last little line gave me pause. “Wanting to justify himself,” it says. This seems to be a constant, universal human urge. Our response to our sin, or even imagined sin, is almost always, “Let me justify myself. Let me defend my actions.” We are desperate to avoid accusation and condemnation. Our conscience’s jump in fright at any such happening, and we immediately pull up the defenses.

I know I am very guilty of this. Whenever I do wrong, or even if I haven’t done wrong but an accused of it, I drive into overdrive self-defense mode. I try to get myself off the hook with, if necessary, nothing more than a technicality. I’ll debate over semantics to avoid the greater judgment associated with certain labels for my actions. This is what the scribe did, nitpicking on the definition of “neighbor.” It’s what Bill Clinton did that put him at the butt of many jokes which continue today and annihilated any respect that some people had for him.

Of course, this is not acceptable. We have no right to justify ourselves. Most of the time we actually are in the wrong, and even when we are not we will usually end up there in the course of pursuing our justification. In fact, even when we are not in the wrong on the surface we often are still influenced by sin somewhere further down, behind the scenes. There is no justification for us, at least on our own terms or by our own efforts. 

In the end, we must look to Christ to handle this issue. In our lives, we must emulate Him. Though He was truly innocent and just, He did not attempt to justify Himself when accused of all kinds of crimes. He instead sat silent, content to await His justification from God which came at His resurrection. When we are truly innocent, we can and must rely on God to provide our justification, our vindication before those who accuse us. When we are not innocent, we also must rely on God in Christ. We must find our justification in the one who justifies the ungodly through Christ, and the only way to find justification in Christ is to confess that we are unjustified in ourselves.

So do not be like the scribe. Do not seek to justify yourself. Instead, entrust yourself to God, confessing your faults and waiting patiently in your righteousness. He will take care of your justification.

Wanting to Justify Himself

Is the Lord’s Prayer for Jesus to Return?

Is the Lord’s Prayer really an eschatological prayer, a wish for God to usher in the Kingdom and finish all things? Some people have suggested so, and it actually seems likely enough. So here is a possible way to read the Lord’s Prayer as a prayer for Christ to return:

Our Father in heaven – The prayer starts off by acknowledging that God is in heaven, where things are already right and where the authority over earth lies. God alone has the power and right to bring in the age to come, and since He is our Father, we can approach and ask this of Him.

Hallowed be your name – This is the ultimate goal of creation: the worship and glorification of God. To pray “hallowed be your name” is to ask God to finally bring the world to its conclusion where all is prayer and praise, and God alone is known as holy.

Your kingdom come – This is the key and obvious point of asking for God to finish the story and send Christ back to us, but I would also argue that this is in a way the intended context and meaning of the rest of the prayer. We pray for the Kingdom to come because that is what life is ultimately all about and is the only hope for the world.

Your will be done – This is what God’s Kingdom looks like, and what we pray for God to accomplish by sending Jesus back. We want a world which is in conformity to His will, where lies and lust and licentiousness are once and for all done with and instead, the world works in the perfect harmony it was created for under people who live as God designed humans to live.

On earth as it is in heaven – Heaven is the control room and the place of God’s throne where His will is actually executed supremely. The goal of all things is that earth should come fully into conformity to God’s will, just as heaven already is. Essentially, we pray for heaven and earth to finally become one.

Give us today our (daily?) bread – This does not sound eschatological at first, but the consensus these days is that the Greek word translated “daily” does not mean “daily” at all. This word appears nowhere else in ancient Greek texts but here. One theory which has gained some ground is that it means “tomorrow” or “the next day.” In essence, it could be taken to mean, “Give us today the bread of tomorrow,” i.e. the bread of the eschatological feast, the wedding feast of Christ’s union with His bride. Give us, as it were, eternal life. (As a side note, another possible translation might lead to a Communion connection, which would make sense as well since Communion is fundamentally eschatological.)

Forgive us our debts as we also forgive our debtors – While we think of forgiveness of sins as primarily a present or past reality, there is an important future dimension. While our sins are forgiven in Christ, we still bear the earthly consequences of our sins and must submit to death, the original punishment for sin. Our forgiveness of sins in the present anticipates the last day, when we will be delivered from all of sin’s consequences, death will be undone, and shame and guilt will be relegated to this passing age. Yet Christ also reminds us that the forgiveness we receive then will be in alignment with the forgiveness we give out now, a pressing reminder to live a life of forgiveness.

Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil – The word translated “temptation” is also frequently translated “trial” or “tribulation,” and it is in this sense we can see an eschatological dimension here. The Jews expected (just as many Christians do) a severe time of trial and tribulation immediately preceding the end. In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray to be preserved and protected, not subject to grueling trials but delivered from the evil powers which cause them.

For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever – In concluding, we ascribe to God all that we ask of Him in this prayer. We want God to bring in the Kingdom using His power and fill the earth with His glory, and so we acknowledge these perfections of God and praise Him for them. By adding “forever,” we call to mind the eternal bliss which waits on the other side of Christ’s return. His reign will never end.

Is the Lord’s Prayer for Jesus to Return?

The Father Loves Baby Steps

As Christians, we will always, until our resurrection and glorification, still be growing up. We have been born again, and after every birth one remains an infant for quite some time. The thing about the new birth is that, being a reality of the Holy Spirit acting upon our minds and hearts, it doesn’t always lead to the same obvious, consistent growth that our first, bodily births do. It’s mixed and splotchy and inconsistent, not because of any fault on God’s part but because of our sinful absurdity. 

Despite our ridiculousness, our heavenly Father is good, loving, and patient with us. We have been adopted by grace alone, regardless of the sins which beset us, and because we stand by this grace in Jesus Christ, we are perpetually accepted before God. This means that He stands ready and waiting to encourage and accept our every move along His way, while simultaneously ready and waiting to forgive all our stops and tantrums along the way when we stop and confess them to Him.

This fact of grace has been something encouraging to me as of late while doing my personal evangelism class at BCF. I know quite well that I am sinfully and woefully inadequate when it comes to sharing my faith with other people (primarily because I am sinfully and woefully inadequate when it comes to conversing with other people). I have made little progress, but I have made some. I was able to share my testimony recently. It wasn’t very hard in the particular case, though I had expected it to be more difficult. This was nothing, especially in comparison to other, more mature Christians, or in comparison to Christ Himself.

Despite my slow and crawling progress, God is gracious. Having adopted me for Himself, He is not cruel to and ready to punish me, but a happy Father who loves His new son. He accepts and rejoiced over my baby steps without for a moment compromising His demands for perfect obedience. He is a kind Father, and He loves me more even than I love my own son.

So remember this in all your faltering obedience. Never deny and forget that you are still a sinner and imperfect and even rebellious, but likewise never forget that God loves your baby steps towards Him.

The Father Loves Baby Steps

Hate the World, Or Burn with It

Do not love the world or the things that belong to the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in him. For everything that belongs to the world — the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride in one’s lifestyle — is not from the Father, but is from the world. And the world with its lust is passing away, but the one who does God’s will remains forever.

1 John 2:15-17

This world will burn. I don’t mean that the physical, spacetime universe will be permanently destroyed, of course.1 I mean the rulers and systems of this age, the present cultures, structures, and institutions which are beholden to the flesh and the devil, which foster sin and exacerbate suffering. These are what John and Paul often refer to in Scripture as the “world” or “this age.” And as John said just above, they are passing away. The world will be condemned and toppled when Christ returns to judge and recreate.

But it is easy to talk about this stuff in general, abstract terms. What is this condemned world in real, actual life? What does it mean to love it and the things in it, as John warned us against? I’ve been giving this some thought lately, and it is not too hard to see how it works. The world offers its own vision for life in direct opposition to the call of Jesus. Naturally, this vision takes different forms in different cultures, and I do not know much about the way of worldly life presented to people in most cultures, but what I am familiar with is the American one. So what is the world in America?

One easily identifiable component of the world system in America is its relentless pursuit of personal wealth and “success.” Our society is powerfully shaped by this idol. Ideally, we go to school to get qualifications that land us in decent jobs from which we can work our way up to riches. Few make it all the way through this journey to the top, but its role as the standard goal is unquestionable. The life of corporate advancement, complete with expensive clothing, status watches, luxury cars, and all the rest, is taken for granted as an ideal, part of the good life for which we Americans strive.

Yet, while diligently working in a profitable job is by no means an evil or a sin, the system behind this success culture is clearly and certainly corrupt to the core. Quite frequently, it demands that you offer in sacrifice your integrity, your spouse, your children, your commitment to your church, and by all means your sacrificial giving on its pagan altar. It breaks apart families and in fact even individuals under stress and the pursuit of the wind. You are not permitted to give with unlimited generosity, sacrificing wealth and status too thoroughly to help the least of these, but must spend freely and extensively on certain restaurants, gizmos, and fashions with symbolic functions in order to climb the ladder. This system is greed and pride incarnate, the actual reality of the “pride of life.” It may be true that it is entirely possible to have one of these jobs while not participating in these corruptions, but it remains a frightening world, and one which demands intentional, diligent Gospel devotion for a follower of Christ to spiritually survive.

The world also manifests itself in the reigning sexual ethos, where the only thing that matters is personal sexual expression and unrestrained choice. The union of easy divorce, endlessly accessible birth control, affordable abortion options, casual hookups, proliferating online porn, and the de-shaming of adultery brings forth a sexual culture of death. It creates emotional distress, insecure men, unfulfilled women, rapidly spreading diseases, fuel for sex trafficking, and broken homes (the last of which tends to bring with it a host of other problems, such as generational poverty, drug abuse, gang crime, and school violence). What is hailed as “liberation” is actually slavery to the flesh. The culture which asks “What’s wrong with consenting adults doing what they want in the bedroom?” is the very same culture which robs millions of people of their consenting freedom to slavishly serve (in many cases quite literally) the god Sexual Pleasure.

I could go on exposing the systems and structures which make up the world, but I want to move on to make a more important point. We must hate the world. These systems are evil, pure evil, ruining God’s creation and the humans He loves so much, and they will be damned to Hell when Christ returns to judge the living and the dead. We are not allowed to flirt and compromise with the enemy of God’s create humanity, even if this enemy is made up in large part of those same humans. Whoever may make up many of the ground troops, the rulers and powers behind the world are Satan and his hordes. To participate in the systems they have set up on earth in their time of power is to participate in cosmic, demonic rebellion against God. The force that might tempt you to a “harmless” casual hookup is the same one that turned a mere man into a naked, superstrength, chain-breaking monster before driving a horde of pigs to cast themselves off a cliff to their deaths.2

This brings me to a related point about human accountability. We often wonder how God could really be justified in condemning so many normal, seemingly decent people. Would it really be right for God to punish polite Jim Bob down the road just because he’s not sure Jesus rose from the dead? Yet I want to say on this that the majority of people are not as innocent as they look. No, Jim would never buy a sex slave, but he does give his money to a porn website that acquires much of its “talent” from trafficking organizations. Yes, Jim pays for welfare with his taxes, but despite his ability to afford a BMW he has politely ignored every email, telephone, and visitation campaign asking for his support for starving orphans in Afghanistan for 15 years. And of course, Jim would never expand his company with a sweatshop filled with impoverished children, but he has no problem making major business deals giving money to companies that do just that. He might be innocent of thousands of awful crimes, but in the end God sees how he is aiding and abetting tens of thousands.

The world is an omnipresent web of wickedness, and to avoid getting caught in it takes great care. But as Christians we must take that care, because to do otherwise is to entangle Christ with Satan. Nothing can result from such a union but pain, suffering, and judgment. As John said above, “the world with its lust is passing away, but the one who does God’s will remains forever.” If we do not want to pass away with the world, we will have to cling to Christ, but to cling to Christ is to hate the world which opposes Him and His reign of grace.  There is no other option. Hate the world or burn with it.

This will lead us to some tough questions about the lines and connections in participation with the evils of the world. We know it would be sinful for us to submit children to labor in rough conditions with pitiful pay just because they can’t survive otherwise, but is it wrong to give our money to companies that do so in exchange for affordable shoes? All evangelical Christians would agree that homosexuality is wrong, but does that mean we shouldn’t come to our gay non-Christian friend’s wedding? And while I may just need a job, is there something inappropriate in trying to sell services for a company that I’m convinced is seriously (though legally) ripping people off?

These questions all need to be addressed, but in addressing them all we must remember the enemy. The world is the devil’s kingdom. Let us not get drawn in, but draw our swords and fight to stand for the kingdom of God instead.

Hate the World, Or Burn with It

Church Is for the Church

What is a Sunday morning church service for? As Christians, we meet together on the first day of every week, the day of Christ’s resurrection. We sing songs, hear preaching, and (hopefully) take Communion. But why? What is the purpose and goal of this meeting?

To many people, our gathering together as the Church on Sunday is about evangelism, about reaching the lost. Contemporary, upbeat songs attract them, relevant preaching helps them see the usefulness of Christianity to their lives, and finally we invite them to make their professions of faith and perhaps join our church.

Let me be entirely clear from the outset: trying to reach the lost, or doing the things I just mentioned, is not at all bad. I could never say they are. Nonetheless, I believe that the outreach focus is not the right focus for our weekly meetings. As Ecclesiastes reminds us, there is a time and a place for everything, and, Biblically, our weekly gatherings as the Church are not, I am convinced, for evangelistic purposes, but for, well, the Church itself.

Scripturally, church (the weekly service) is for the Church (the people). It is not about reaching unbelievers, but about building up the Body of Christ. Honestly, it would be difficult to point to a particular proof text for this point, but that’s not because it’s unbiblical, but because it is the basic assumption of all the New Testament letters to the churches. Reading any of the letters makes this clear enough if you’re paying attention, but some passages that draw it into sharper focus might be 1 Corinthians 14, large portions of Ephesians, or the latter chapters of Hebrews.

Acts also shows this pattern. There are two parallel ministries in Acts: the evangelistic ministries which occurred out and about in society, and the gatherings of believers by themselves. There was public preaching to the crowds, and after and apart from that the believers gathered together devoting themselves “to the apostles’ teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to the prayers” (Acts 2:42).

In fact, this verse I believe sums up how Church is meant to work. In order to become the people we need to be to reach the world for Christ from Monday to Saturday, we must participate in the right Body-building, sanctifying activities together on Sunday. We learn from the apostles’ teaching how to live the Christian life rightly, so that we please God and win people to the beauty of the Gospel life. In fellowship we encourage and assist one another as fellow believers to spur each other on to good works, to reassure doubts, to share burdens and joys, and to share insights and experiences with our common Savior. By the breaking of bread in Communion, we recall the sacrifice of Christ in the past, enjoy His sustaining power for us in the present, and train ourselves to live in anticipation of the resurrection life which we will share with Him in the future. Finally, our collective prayers invite God’s supernatural power and presence into our life together as the Body of Christ. 

These means of sanctification—preaching, fellowship, sacraments, and prayer—are the essential elements of our weekly gatherings as the Church, in addition to worship, and yet are explicitly believer-oriented. Only believers can “devote themselves to the apostles’ teaching” in a productive and transformative way. Only believers can encourage one another with the Gospel, share burdens in Christ, and build each other up with their spiritual gifts. Only believers are permitted to take Communion and so feed on the nourishment of Christ’s body and blood given for us. Only believers have unfettered access to God’s throne of grace for prayer. And only believers know to worship God in spirit and in truth.

The point is fairly simple, then. Our meetings as the Church are meant to be by the Church for the Church. Unbelievers are, of course, welcome. They can come to hear the Gospel, which is always a good thing. We can love them and show them the life of Christ in its beauty. Yet the presence of unbelievers in our meetings is assumed in the New Testament to be occasional and potential rather than normal and intentional (see 1 Cor. 14:23). The basic and important pattern is the gathering of Christians to be Christians.

I again emphasize, though, that this is not at all to say anything against evangelistic outreach towards unbelievers. In fact, I would instead say that the church-for-Church model is an essential part of reaching unbelievers. By concentrating on the strengthening and renewing of our life in Christ together when we meet on Sundays, we can become more and more able to reach the world around us the rest of the week. This is, in fact, exactly what the earliest Christians historically did. They met together early Sunday morning before going to work (as Sunday was a workday for them) for the benefits I mentioned above, and then they set out on their weeks to be the best followers of Christ they could be in the sight of unbelievers. The Lord’s Day was a time to recharge together in the presence of the one Lord, so that by His Spirit they would be empowered to fulfill the Great Commission when they went their separate ways.

I believe we could do well to relearn this approach in modern times. It seems to be more Biblical, and have been more historically effective at producing active Christians, than seeker-sensitive or evangelistic approaches. And in fact, it stands as a challenge to us all specifically in evangelism. It’s harder to be a witness for Christ in our actual, daily lives and reach unbelievers there than to round them up for a Sunday preacher, after all. Maybe if we try we’ll find that the hard way is, as usual, the better.

Church Is for the Church